A Stoic Response to the 2016 Election

November 9th, 2016  |  Published in commentary

Earlier this week, Quartz published a piece about how philosophy has failed in its essential role of helping us to make sense of our world by focusing on academic navel-gazing. My initial reaction was that, yeah, they should be doing a better job. My second reaction was that as someone who values and studies philosophy, there is no “they”, it is my job as much as anyone else’s to rectify the situation. Without further ado, here is my first attempt at that rectification.

If you are anything like most of the people I know, you are reeling from last night’s election results. I won’t go into much detail about what I think happened except to say that I don’t see it as an endorsement of bigotry by the majority of the country (although there is definitely a strong bigot contingent). Instead, I see it as the reaction of people for whom our economy (our whole country, even) simply has not been working for quite a while now. In particular I am talking about people in rural areas who have been seeing their jobs, communities, and way of life steadily deteriorating for decades and for whom a vote of more of the same was simply not an option. I am not trying to condone their choice, only to point out that it would be both wrong and counterproductive to write them off as simply ignorant rednecks. The people who voted for Trump are just as American as I am and this election is a statement that they feel something is very broken with a large part of our country.

That being said, what about all of the progressive urbanites who are in a state of collective shock right now? I believe that stoicism can be of some help here.

First of all, let me start by saying that if you base your understanding of the word stoic on how it is commonly used, you may need to add a second line to that definition. Stoicism as a philosophy is not about ignoring or enduring unpleasantness. Instead, it is about recognizing that unpleasantness is inevitable and finding ways of having a joyful and fulfilling life in spite of it.

The first tenet of stoicism is that one can view the world as being comprised of things which are in your control and things which are not. When put this way, it quickly becomes clear that it isn’t  a good idea to allow your happiness to be determined by those things which are outside of your control (since they will eventually turn against you). Furthermore, if you think about it, there is really very little that you actually have any control over, really just your actions and your judgments. That means that just about everything else in the world is outside of your control, including the weather, what other people think about your actions, and literally everything that has happened up until this moment. So what does that mean for last night’s election? That it is outside of your control. Whether or not you voted and who you may have voted for are irrelevant now. The vote happened and the results have been accepted by the candidates. Whatever you did or did not do, we now live in a world in which Trump is president elect.

So what now, progressive urbanite?

Grieving, obviously.

The election results are not good news and it is neither my job nor my desire to sugarcoat that fact. However, I would encourage you to grieve fully and quickly. Get it over with. If you’re still stuck in a pit of despair in two years when the midterms come around you’re not going to be of any use to the ideals which you hold so dear. (I could also suggest that you practice some negative visualization prior to last night, but that would violate tenet number 1, above.)

Okay, with that out of the way (hope you’re feeling better), what’s next? Let’s look at the things which are in our control. Fortunately, it is a short list:

  1. Our actions. If you are unhappy with the election results, then you need to organize. For example, you could:
  • Build organizations and communities to mitigate the effects of what you fear Trump might do, whether by providing support for those who his policies might hurt (such as security for minorities or ensuring access to women’s health services, whatever the law may say in a year) or by denying him a political mandate (protest, talk to your representatives, do not be silent and therefore tacitly complicit).
  • Prepare for the midterm elections. Trump isn’t nearly as frightening as Trump+House+Senate. In two years you have the possibility of restoring some of those checks and balances, but to do so you need to start organizing now (hence why it is so important to get the grieving out of the way).
  • There are, of course, many other options, ranging from trying to get rid of the electoral college to secession. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but if you are upset, you should do something.
  1. Our judgments. This may seem to be much less important than our actions, but I would disagree. Whether or not you agree with my bit above about the reason for the election I hope that you realize that Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and that unless that cause is addressed, we have little to no hope of making any real or lasting progress. If you believe that what happened is the result of bigotry, then you should attempt to alleviate that bigotry (a difficult task, no doubt, but bigotry often stems from fear of the unknown, so it can be addressed). If you agree with me that there is a significant contingent of people for whom our system is not working, you can work on that. Or you can work on the ~50% of registered voters who did not vote this election. In any case, you might be asking why this is listed under judgements. This is listed under judgements because in order for you to make any progress on the above issues, you aren’t going to have much success if what you think is the problem and what is actually the problem aren’t the same thing. Writing off everyone who voted for Trump as a bigot or everyone who didn’t vote as apathetic is not going to make it easier to change their minds, much less influence their actions. So the best course is probably to let go of your judgements, and to build new ones on better foundations.

I realize that this may not seem particularly comforting or helpful to you, but it’s what I have to give. I believe that this is going to be a difficult time for all of us, but that it is something that we can get through, collectively.

If you are looking for a good introduction to stoicism, I would suggest William Irving’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

Also, it is worth noting that this post didn’t follow my normal process, which usually involves letting it sit for a day before revising and posting. As such, it likely has more errors than usual, which I may or may not correct in the future.

Have a tranquil day.

Tom Dillon

9 November 2016

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Reporting back from GameStorm 18

March 23rd, 2016  |  Published in board games

Last weekend I was at GameStorm 18, Portland’s regional board game convention. I had a great time, and got to play a bunch of stuff:

  • Steam
  • Splendor (x2)
  • Favor of the Pharaoh (x2)
  • Raiders of the North Sea
  • The King is Dead
  • Traders of Osaka
  • Dice City
  • One Zero One
  • Krosmaster: Arena (x2)
  • Skull King
  • Lifeboat (with the Cannibalism expansion)
  • Shipwrights of the North Sea (with Townsfolk Expansion)
  • Isle of Trains
  • Fleet (with all the expansions)
  • Ca$h ‘n Guns (second edition)
  • Swinging Jivecat Voodoo Lounge
  • Eurorails
  • Medina
  • Inglorious Space

Overall, I had a great time. I didn’t run into any annoying people, and nothing I played fell flat (although a couple weren’t as fun as I expected). Here are some of the highlights:

Eurorails – This is something that I have been wanting to play for literally years (rather, I’ve been wanting to play any Crayon Rails game), but the weight of the game and long play time has been problematic. I definitely want to play more Crayon Rails games, and will probably buy/trade for Nippon Rails at some point.

Raiders of the North Sea – This game was just awesome, probably the best Kickstarter I’ve backed. In some ways it reminds me of Tzolk’in, but is a bit lighter and the rules are much more intuitive. I’m not sure if I had as much fun playing it as I did with Eurorails, but it will be much easier to get to the table. (Shipwrights was also great, the expansion really brings a lot to the game without adding much complexity.)

Inglorious Space – This game came as a complete surprise to me, given that I had never heard of it before playing it (not surprising since it is only a few days into its Kickstarter campaign), but I loved it. Based on classic space shooters like Galaga, it is a multiplayer with a semi-co-op mechanic. I had been excited about The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade, but after looking into it more, it just sounded tedious. Inglorious Space, on the other hand, plays quick, light, and fun, but has enough depth to keep it interesting. I’m definitely looking forward to playing it more.

Isle of Trains – Another game that I had never heard of. This is a tiny (52 card?) game about building a train and fulfilling contracts. It had some depth, interesting decisions, and good interaction. For $10, I can’t think of a good reason not to buy it.

All in all, a great weekend. Looking forward to GameStorm 19.


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On Goals

January 27th, 2016  |  Published in commentary

The most recent post on what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs, thestonemind (which I would recommend even to non-climbers), talks about goals and some of the pushback that the author has gotten in regards to his advice to let go of them. Towards the end, he adds a bit of nuance, saying:

But does that mean I have no attachments, or propose that you should have none? Definitely not. I’m a realist, not an absolutist. But I do feel there’s a fine line between valuing things and clinging to them. To work assiduously and in earnest, but not be overly concerned with results—here’s the thing that I couldn’t quite express to my dad over dinner. I guess you could say my personal philosophy is more about the means than the ends. It’s not unlike the school of climbing that places style above all else. If you cut corners or do something in bad style, if you focus on just getting to the top or getting there faster and ignore the how of it, you’ll end up missing the whole damn point. An attachment to outcome that’s too strong can pull us out of alignment with the most meaningful things in life.

To me, what he is talking about is the difference between internal and external goals. I define internal goals as goals where I have control over the outcome and external goals as goals in which I don’t. What does this even mean?

Well, to say that I want to ride my bike as fast as I can is an internal goal, since even if I have a flat tire which slows me down, what counts is the effort I put in, not the result. On the other hand, if I say that I want to be the fastest person on the trail, that is an external goal. If a professional cyclist happens to be riding that day, I’m just not in the sort of physical condition where I can do more than keep up for a short period of time. Likewise, if I have a flat tire, my goal is dead in the water. As you may have guessed, I view the first sort of goal as good and the second as counterproductive.

So does that mean that I should pay no attention to how fast everyone else is riding? No. When I get passed by someone, I do my best to catch up with them, even if I have no expectation of passing them. What’s more, I’m thankful for their presence, since without them it is unlikely that I would have pushed myself as hard.

Another example comes from Kendo. It doesn’t matter how good your opponent is, you are only in charge of how well you fight. All your opponent is doing is keeping you honest, really. Well . . . not really. Every opponent, whether they are more or less skilled than you, has something to teach you, and the only real way to lose is to fail to pay attention to the lesson (unless you are in an actual duel, in which case dying would count as loss, too). I would argue that the same can be said of any climbing route, bike ride, or board game. They all offer you the chance to get to know yourself better.

Unless you get hung up on external goals, that is, too invested in how the other person is doing to have a chance at success yourself.


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My New Year’s Resolution: Go Easier On Myself

January 9th, 2016  |  Published in Uncategorized

2015 was a rough year. I started in a new position at work in December of 2014, and although I knew that it was going to be rough since my boss had been out for much of the previous year on medical leave, I was unprepared for just how bad it would be. I had thought that the situation surely couldn’t last another six months. It went on for the entire year. In 2015, work took over my life.

Predictably, I feet terrible about what the situation has done to my family (I was not able to give them the attention and time they deserved) and, to a lesser extent, to my writing (it slowed to a crawl), but it was exacerbated by how I felt about work. I was not able to cover both my and my boss’s responsibilities anywhere near my expectations and as a result I felt like I was failing at every aspect of my life which I valued (family, writing, work). I felt like I was killing myself for my work (and to some extent, I was, I gained 25 pounds and started to experience physical symptoms of stress) and hurting my family in the process, all in the name of a job which I wasn’t doing to anywhere near my expectations.

As if that weren’t bad enough, somewhere along the line I picked up an expectation that I should be appreciated at work. Sure, I received an Excellence in Service award in addition to the rest of my department, and people thanked me on a regular basis (without everyone’s support, I would have quit months ago), but part of me was hoping that I would receive something on the anniversary of my starting in my new position. Even at the time I realized this was unrealistic, and that I was setting myself up for failure, but it still hurt nonetheless when the day came and went (compounded by the fact that I dropped the ball on my wife’s birthday).

In short, 2015 sucked.

But while the suckage was due to external factors, the suffering that resulted was almost entirely my fault. I had  impossible expectations for myself and when I didn’t meet those I thought praise would make up for it. It didn’t.

In truth, the only expectations that make any sense are for me to do the best that I can given the circumstances. Everything else is out of my control. Likewise, there is no such thing as enough praise (and beyond doing my best I have no real control over how much of it people choose to give to me anyway). I did get praise. A lot of it, actually, from just about everyone. And yet it wasn’t enough, I wanted people to remember a date (as if they weren’t busy enough themselves) that is pretty arbitrary anyway (I chose my starting date to make life easier for the Payroll department rather than any numerical significance, and what’s so important about 365 days?).

So, in 2016 I have a single resolution: I want to go easier on myself. That doesn’t mean letting myself off the hook completely, but it does mean being realistic about my expectations and not letting myself get worked up by praise or lack thereof. I imagine that this will be both very simple and very hard and that I’ll probably have to apply my resolution recursively (I’ll have to give myself a pass on failing to give myself a pass).

I should also point out that I have plenty of goals (finishing the story I’m working on, finishing another section on my climbing wall, blogging more, etc.), but they are things I want to do this is something about myself that I want to change.

Anyway, enough whining, back to work.

There Are No Words

May 1st, 2015  |  Published in Uncategorized

As promised, I have posted the story that I mentioned yesterday: “There Are No Words“. Sometimes when writers get asked which of their stories is their favorite, they say something like, “Stories are like children, you love them all equally.” Not me. I have definite favorites, and although I would be hard pressed to pick one that represents the absolute best of my work to date, there are some that I just flat-out like more than others. “There Are No Words” is one of these.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. The story takes place in a near-future version of Olympia, which is where I live now, which was incredibly fun to write. Writing a post-literate society that was neither utopian nor dystopian was a very rewarding challenge (that I think I pulled off pretty well, as most of the people who have read the story only noticed that something was “different” without really being able to put their finger on it). I didn’t plan it, but the story ended up being about two teen girls’ friendship, which is something that I don’t come across a whole lot in my reading. Finally, I got to deal with one of my pet peeves, which is that writers seem to find it easier to write stories with zombies or spaceships or magic than to write a story without some sort of automobile analog (seriously, if you are writing in a post-peak-oil setting, don’t have people driving around in cars, also, horses for riding are and have been incredibly expensive).

So why am I posting this story here rather than selling it? First off, it is about 9,000 words, which is about 3,000 words too many for most markets. Second, I tried to sell it to YA markets and the very first word in the story was “Shit!”, probably not the best idea (I have since revised it to “Ostras!” which is more profane but obscure enough to not raise many red flags; it also fits the setting better). Third, the story opens with the characters in an Augmented Reality game that involves ghouls (originally zombies) and I suspect that some slush readers never made it far enough in to find out that the story has just about nothing to do with zombies. Finally, this story has a lot of ideas and leaves some of them unexplored, deliberately (one piece of feedback I got from an editor was that they loved the story but that it was both too long and too short, which is to say that they felt it needed to decide whether it was the first chapter of a novel or just a short story; I agree with this analysis, but have decided to go another route, and plan on writing more stories in this setting that link in and explore some of the concepts).

Without further ado, here is the first bit of the story. Enjoy!

“Ostras!” Emma yelled, and then started to run. “Cat, the ghouls saw me!”

Catalina echoed the sentiment under her breath, and followed her friend as she sprinted through the crowd of undead. The ghouls must have recently fed, because they barely noticed two of them as they ran. She yelled at a ghoul on a bicycle that almost ran her down but immediately regretted it when the nearest ghouls looked at her with expressions of anger. But of course they weren’t angry, ghouls didn’t get angry, they were probably just starting to get hungry again. She needed to get out of there.

“That was a close one,” Emma said when Catalina caught up to her in an alleyway.

“Way to throw your best friend in front of the train, Em,” Catalina said, panting from the mad dash that had been required to catch up to her friend.

Emma threw up her hands. “You were surrounded. If you weren’t able to get out of there on your own, there wasn’t anything that I could have done to help you.”

Catalina punched her friend in the shoulder. “And honor, did you forget about that?”

“Honor is just what boys call stupidity. I’m not going to get eaten over that,” Emma said.

“Whatever. We need to get moving before they find us,” Catalina said.

They started to move again, walking through the deserted alleyway, but with less urgency than in the street. Catalina and Emma relaxed as they made their way deeper into the maze of alleys that ran through Olympia’s Downtown Island. In different circumstances, they could have taken one of the water taxis that clogged the canals, but with the ghouls, that was out of the question. So they walked along their route, keeping just a block or two away from the street away from the deeper alleys that resounded with the sounds of drinking and gambling and other sounds, no less disturbing for their indistinguishable nature. They did see an occasional ghoul in the alleyways, but they just hid and waited and the threat passed.

Finally, they emerged into the brightness and heat of Percival Landing with its food carts and sleek fiberglass ferries. They had made it.

“This is getting too easy,” Catalina said.

“Agreed; we need to find a new game,” Emma said.

“See you tomorrow?” Catalina asked.

“Of course.”

The two friends parted ways, Emma heading towards the ferry that would take her up the Deschutes towards her home in Tumwater and Catalina heading towards the ferry that would take her to the Eastside.

As she walked, she held her left hand out in front of her, palm down. A black rectangle was tattooed on the back of her hand, and she pushed her thumb in the middle of it. A moment later, her System had read her thumbprint through the interface pad that had been layered into her skin and verified it.

Immediately, the harsh sunlight dimmed, while the colors of the buildings and plants and everything else intensified. After an hour of staring at the fading colors of the city, it took her brain a few seconds to acclimate. Her System polled the network and information began to populate on the people that were walking around the park, until varicolored icons and numbers hovered over each of their heads. She knew that the same thing was happening with her, and suddenly the people who had been oblivious to her presence glanced in her direction before going about their business.

Catalina boarded a ferry bound for Ellis Cove. As soon as she stepped aboard, two icons appeared in the center of her field of vision, one showing a coin, another an icon of a stick figure rowing. She had the money to pay for passage, but there was no need to spend it, so she focused on the rowing figure, causing the coin to fade into the background. A moment later, the coin had faded entirely. The rowing icon blinked out of existence and a green line that only she could see appeared on the ground in front of her. She followed it and was guided to a vacant oar. It would be a few minutes before the ferry would be full enough to leave so she flipped through the news icons to see if anything interesting had come up while she had played ZomCom with Emma. Nothing had, but her school icon was blinking, indicating that she still needed to put in some school time for the day. She focused on the icon until it was activated.

A moment later a tutor avatar blinked into being on the bench next to her, a figment of her System. The tutor cleared her throat, and began to speak.

“By the end of the twentieth century, the world had–“

The tutor was a woman somewhere in her 30’s of indistinguishable ethnicity. In fact, everything about her was vague, forgettable, with the exception of her voice, full of excitement bounded by precision. The meta for the Academy said that they had scoured the globe to find the best lecturers on any given subject and contracted them to record the lectures. Catalina believed it, but even so, she wasn’t in the mood for history, and canceled the lecture. The tutor avatar vanished.

The rowing icon flashed to the middle of her vision, overlaid by green arrows chasing each other around in a tight circle. The arrows would rotate at various speeds to indicate the tempo, but she immediately banished it to the corner of her vision, opting instead for music that would modulate its rhythm to keep her on pace.

The academy software returned to the center of her vision, a menu of icons arrayed in front of her. Each icon was color coded to show how much time she needed to put into it. Catalina ignored these metrics, and instead chose the only icon that was already green, the branching network of dots that represented Abstract Concepts. Immediately, a Go board popped into view. She went first, placing the black stone by concentrating on an area of the board and then tapping her fingers to select the proper intersection, the fingers on her left hand moving the reticle up and down and the fingers on her right hand moving it from side to side. She knew that she wouldn’t have a lot of time, so she had set the game up on a 13×13 board rather than the standard 19×19. The game was over by the time the ferry reached Ellis Cove, with the System winning by 3 points. A moment later a notification blinked in the corner of her vision, the Abstract Concepts icon overlaid by a green +6, not that she needed the points.

When the ferry neared an image of hands releasing an oar popped into her field of vision, but she had already let go. A moment later, the oar was locked into the docking position, raked down almost parallel to the hull. The ferry’s small motors engaged, swinging it around and bringing it to rest against the dock. People queued up and filed off the boat. A coin notification blinked at her, with a green +3, the minimum payment for a shift at the oars.

There were only a few people waiting to board ferry for the trip back downtown, which meant that the people staying on the ferry to take it back downtown would make at least twenty or thirty credits. Rowing ferries didn’t pay enough to live on, but for someone still in school, it could make the difference between a fun summer and instant noodles.

From the dock, she walked uphill through the trees until she reached the road. The bicycle traffic was heavy, and she was torn between waiting for an opening and walking a hundred meters out of the way to use the overpass. Finally, a gap opened and she dashed across. Fifteen minutes of walking along a footpath that wound its way through moss-covered trees and she was home.

Read the rest of the story.

Writing: Profession or Hobby?

April 30th, 2015  |  Published in announcement, writing

Over the last few months, I have had to reevaluate my approach to writing. Do I look at it as a profession or a hobby? I had always looked at it as a profession (albeit one to which I aspired rather than belonged), now I need to learn to look at it as a hobby. This is not to say that I am planning on taking it any less seriously (indeed, ask my wife about my board games and you will get an exasperated explanation of how seriously I take my hobbies), but rather that I am changing what I expect to get out of it.

There are several reasons for this. I have a two year old at home and have recently changed to a position that both requires more of my time (40 hours rather than 32) and can be significantly more draining (I tend to miss a lot of my breaks and I actually need them to relax now, which cuts into my writing productivity). This lack of time has led to me allowing my writing to cause me anxiety (when the opposite should be true), but that anxiety has more to do with my expectations than with the quality of my writing. Simply put, when I worked in retail, writing was a sort of long-term hedge against, well, working in retail. My thought back then was that if I were still working in retail in a decade, I would have enough quality fiction to base a business model off of. As it is, I like my job (and have for several years now), and even if I made enough money writing to get by, I don’t think I would want to give it up. So even though I feel that the quality of my writing has improved, my emotions have suffered. Finally, I have no desire to do the whole self-promotion thing, I don’t suggest my stories to people who don’t first indicate an interest and I don’t nag them about it. I feel that this is a great attribute for a writer (or an artist of any kind, really), since I really don’t want to be that guy who is always trying to get you to read his story. All of this adds up to writing as a hobby.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if you deal with me personally, it hopefully means less moody Tom. It should also result in more blog posts, as I enjoy blogging, too, and it will likely benefit from a less adversarial relationship with my other writing hobby. Finally, it will mean no more sitting on stories. Sure, I’ll still try to sell them first (I mean, why wouldn’t I?), but I’ll go for the most likely outlets and then just put them up here (and Amazon and Smashwords). As it stands, I have three stories and a couple of pieces of flash fiction that are ready to go. I’ll try to get them out in May (it being National Short Story month and all), and I hope to have the first of them up tomorrow. Either way, thanks for sticking with me.

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Proportional Response

April 27th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

This morning there was an attempted shooting at a high school about five miles from my house. Thankfully no one was injured. What struck me most about it, though, was the fact that I was only mildly surprised at the news. School shootings have become common enough that I am no longer shocked by them, even when they are close to home (granted, I am sure that my reaction would have been very different if my son went there or if I knew anyone who attended or worked there).

Now take another almost-tragic event, the shoe bomber. His attempt was also unsuccessful, but anyone who has flown since 2001 is aware of his legacy as they proceed, shoeless, through security checkpoints. What would gun policy look like if our country reacted on the same scale to what are becoming semi-regular school shootings?

I’m not going to talk about what we should do as a country about either of these issues, as it would distract from my point: It is highly unlikely that our systemic responses to these two issues are both correct, and they could both be wrong.

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Ongoing Hugo Drama

April 17th, 2015  |  Published in Uncategorized

You may or may not have heard of the kerfuffle around this year’s Hugo awards. If you care, you probably already know about it, if not you probably have no interest in having me explain it. In any case, i just read a fascinating essay on the subject by Eric Flint. What’s more, he has a lot of interesting stuff to say about awards in general, and even if you aren’t a F&SF fan you should give it a read.

Best books of 2014

February 11th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

Okay, that title may be misleading, it should say “Some books that I read during 2014 and think that you should, too” as some of these books were not published in 2014 (Lady of Mazes was published in 2005, for example). Of course, if I were to actually put that as the title, the Headline Writer’s Guild would blacklist me (don’t laugh, they are scary, secret, and very powerful. haven’t heard of them? my point exactly). In any case, you’ve made it this far, so I should probably give you some actual content. This is a list of books that I read and enjoyed last year, and is not in any particular order.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Far and away my favorite book of last year, but also the one I am most hesitant to recommend. Watching the main character, Maia, trying to do the right thing without letting his new position destroy his values was amazing. I loved everything else about this book, too: the setting, the plot, and the language. The last one is kind of the issue, however. The book is full of jargon, and it was annoying to have to refer to the glossary in back constantly. But then I realized that perhaps the author was trying to have me experience the same thing that Maia was going through; just as Maia was overwhelmed by his new position I was being overwhelmed by the jargon. When I stopped worrying about knowing exactly what people were talking about and just allowed myself to experience the slight confusion as I read, the book really came together for me. Which is precisely the reason that I have such a hard time recommending it, as I can see it being too literary-minded for many fantasy readers and to fantasy-minded for many literary readers (which isn’t to say that fantasy readers can’t handle heavy literature or vice versa, but rather that they have different preferences). In any case, best book of the year, go read it (but make sure you read at least two chapters, the first chapter has a different tone than the rest of the book, and doesn’t give a good sense of what you’re getting into).

Red Rising by Pierce Brown – Imagine a Science Fiction dystopia that reads a bit like Lord of the Flies if all of the characters started off as sociopaths. Red Rising (so far, it is only the first installment in a trilogy) is everything that I wanted The Hunger Games to be. It is dark, but amazing. I loved it. The audiobook was fantastic, too, I could listen to that guy read the phone book. Also, some people seem to think that this is a Teen book, and yes, the main character is a teen, but the book is very adult in its sensibilities, expect to be horrified not just by the things that the characters do (though it really isn’t that graphic, the worst of it happens offscreen), but by the cold, rational way in which they go about it.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway – I had made an attempt to read Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, a few years back but it didn’t take. I tried it again this year after hearing that I really needed to read it from a trusted friend (thanks Linda!). It was brilliant. Then I read Angelmaker, Harkaway’s second book. It has a lot of the same elements that made Gone-Away World so good, but in a tighter, more finely-crafted package (hence why I chose it over the debut). Imagine a British, leftist Neal Stephenson (Angelmaker has some parallels with Cryptonomicon, actually) with pop culture sensibilities writing about things like identity and free will. These books take some work, but they are pure fun and totally worth it (usually I don’t care much about ‘style’ and ‘voice’ but I would read a technical manual on the manufacturing of manhole covers if Harkaway were to write it). The audiobook of this was great, as well, the narrator reminded me in turn of Jason Statham and Bill Nighy (favorite line: “I can sue anything.”). I would not be surprised in the least to see Tigerman on next year’s list.

The Martian by Andy Weir – While not my favorite book of the year, this was definitely my most recommended book of the year. At this point, something like half of my coworkers have read it due at least in part to my proselytizing. If you like Science Fiction, read it. If you like adventure (particularly man vs. nature), read it. If you like space, read it. If you like gallows humor, read it. If you like entertainment, read it. If you like science, read it. If you are not completely dead inside, you should read this book (and if you are dead inside, read it anyway, it might help, who knows). Instead of summarizing the plot, I’ll just go ahead and suggest that you click on the link and read the description on Goodreads.

Rome: An Empire’s Story by Greg Woolf – History books usually aren’t my thing. I’m not reading them to build the foundation a master’s thesis, I’m reading so that I can get some sense of the general patterns of the world. Rome: An Empire’s Story is exactly what I want in a history book. It takes a close look at a handful of periods of Roman history that exemplify what was happening in the empire. It was entertaining and informative, and it never outstayed its welcome, thanks in part to its brevity. If you are reading for more serious reasons, however, I would still recommend this book. It covers a lot of things, and has a truly massive reading list included, making it a great place to start for the more academic minded.

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder – Karl Schroeder has long been one of my favorite short story authors, but his novels hadn’t grabbed me the same way (the Virga series was good, but not great, in my opinion), until this year. Lockstep is his shot at reinventing space opera, a genre which I usually don’t go in for, and it was amazing. The central idea is that of a culture that gets around resource scarcity and lack of Faster Than Light travel by hibernating in lockstep. Everyone goes int cryostasis for thirty years, then wakes up for one month, then goes back into stasis. This allows them to live in marginal environments by having machines stockpile resources while they hibernate. As a side benefit, if someone travels to another planet several light years away, they would spend the entire transit asleep, meaning that it would just be like waking up the next day on a new planet. This book is everything that epic science fiction ought to be: mind-bending and hope-giving. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible cover. Look at it: two generic people in some sort of . . . environment (perhaps it is the future, perhaps it is a Japanese luxury hotel, who can say?). Yay? It would be a perfectly fine cover for a thriller or a novel without cool visuals . . . but Lockstep has Denners. What are denners, you ask? Picture a cross between a cat and an otter, with embedded net access. Adorable and really freaking cool. So why the hell aren’t they on the cover? In any case, read the book, it is excellent.

Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder – I tried to keep this list down to one book per author (see entry for Angelmaker, above), but Lockstep and Lady of Mazes are very different, and each is very cool in its own way. Whereas Lockstep reinvents space opera, Lady of Mazes takes a shot at the singularity. It is set in the far, far future (complete with implanted computing and ringworlds), but is really about (for me, at least) social media and the incursion of the virtual into the real (see Google, Facebook, etc), and the ways it will affect us. Whereas reading one of Schroeder’s short stories is like having a firecracker set off in your mind, this is like having a whole damn string of the things, but you are having such a good time with the pretty lights and loud noises that you hardly notice that your worldview is being tampered with. This is a big, sprawling adventure like Lockstep, but where Lockstep was largely about family, this is largely about society. Also, they didn’t botch the cover.

Darkbeast Rebellion by Morgan Keyes – A juvenile book, really? Well, yes. A sequel? Yeah, that too, so this also, perforce, an endorsement of the first book (Darkbeast). This book may be aimed at younger readers, but it is more emotionally mature than 90% of what I read (and to be clear, emotionally mature does not mean sex and violence). The book manages this by talking to its audience, not at them. The reader gets to watch as Keara makes mistakes, deals with them, then grows up a little. Aside from that, the world is fascinating: every child gets magically bonded with an animal (their Darkbeast) and is taught to give their animal all of their undesirable traits and impulses. The catch is that, when they turn twelve, they have to kill said Darkbeast. In the first book, Keara refused to do so, and this book is the continuation of her struggle to survive the continuation of that decision. As far as I can tell, the publisher only contacted Keyes for two books in this series, and although it comes to a satisfying conclusion, I really, really hope that more get written.

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Top 11 board games – 2014

January 30th, 2015  |  Published in board games

Anyone who spends enough time around me knows that I love board games (some of them no doubt wish that I would shut up about them, sorry Jennifer). Over the past couple of years, their importance has grown for me. Aside from being fun, when I play board games, it is something that I can focus the entirety of my attention on, allowing me to stop thinking about work or whatever might be stressing me out. That benefit, combined with providing a framework for social interaction (talking to strangers is a lot less awkward when you have something to talk about, board games are perfect for this), makes board gaming an ideal hobby, for me at least. So what am I talking about when I talk about board games? Monopoly? Risk? Not really. Both of those are board games, yes, but it in the same way that an Apple II is a computer: it is, and it was really cool when it came out, but it has long since been superseded by vastly improved computers. Modern board games are a huge and varied thing these days, and looking at the shelf of your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) for the first time can be an experience akin to looking at the craft beer section of a well stocked supermarket: You know sort of what is going on in front of you but you don’t have a good idea if you’ll actually like whatever you pick out. Towards that end, I am putting together a list of board games that I enjoyed playing in 2014.

This year, I logged 166 plays (not of 166 different games, mind you, Star Realms alone accounts for 24 plays). I have put together a list of my top 11. They aren’t games that came out in 2014, necessarily, but they are games that I played in 2014. In addition, I’m restricting myself to games that I’ve played at least twice, as a game can seem great the first time around then fall flat on the second play. These games aren’t in any particular order, I’m not going to attempt to figure out if one is better than the other given that I like them all for different reasons with different people in different conditions. Without further ado, here’s the list:

Star Realms – Star Realms is a light, competitive deckbuilding game. To my mind, deckbuilders come in two flavors, “Dominion” and “Ascension”. Dominion style have a common pool of cards for players to buy (which is how they build their decks) that doesn’t change much during the game, as there are multiple copies of each card. Ascension style games also have a common set of cards that both players can buy from, but the selection changes from turn to turn and there are only a few duplicates (of weaker cards). Both styles of game have their strengths and weaknesses, so I won’t go into which is better. Star Realms is part of the Ascension family of games. The thing that makes Star Realms stand out is how quick and inexpensive the game is (15 minutes and $15) and how much player interaction there is (the goal of the game is to destroy your opponent, not to collect victory points like in Dominion, which can feel like multiplayer Solitaire). If you’re on the fence, the app is free and very good. Recommended for: anyone who wants a light, inexpensive, deckbuilder; recovering Magic: The Gathering players who want something to scratch the itch without taking over their lives and ruining their credit scores.

Puzzle Strike Shadows – This one is another deckbuilder, but in the Dominion style. It doesn’t play as quickly as Star Realms, and is much more expensive, but I the gameplay is deeper (lots of combinations and permutations while still remaining very balanced). The really cool thing about Puzzle Strike is that instead of cards, you play with chips (think poker chips made out of cardboard) which you draw out of a bag rather than shuffling. As shuffling is the most annoying part about playing deckbuilders (you usually start the game with ten cards that you cycle through very quickly, meaning you spend a lot of time shuffling a tiny deck, which is just annoying). I picked up Shadows rather than the base game because it is a stand alone expansion and my wife liked the art better. I plan on getting the base game this year. Recommended for: people who want a rich and highly interactive deckbuilder.

Mr. Jack Pocket – Mr. Jack is a classic asymmetrical deduction game in which one player plays as Jack the Ripper and the other as Sherlock. Players take alternating turns trying to confound their opponent (Sherlock attempts to narrow down the pool of suspects and Jack does his best to avoid this). I liked the original, but I felt that the setup and rules were too cumbersome for what was actually going on. Mr. Jack Pocket (or Jack Junior as my wife affectionately calls it) fixes all this. It does not attempt to miniaturize the game, but rather reinterprets it in such a way that the game is distilled down to its purest essence. The setup, rules, and gameplay are elegant enough that I can teach the game to a new player and get two or three full games in over the space of an hour with enough time left over to eat lunch (I have done this a few times now). All of this without sacrificing the depth of the original. Recommended for: people who want a quick and intense two player game with high portability.

Province – Province is the first microgame that I backed on Kickstarter. A eurogame small enough to be shipped in a letter envelope and streamlined enough to play in 25 minutes. It is not a heavy game by any stretch, but there is a surprising amount of depth here. This sort of game is also one reason why I love shorter games: its brevity creates a sort of freedom, you can try all sorts of crazy strategies and if they don’t work out, you haven’t spent two hours in the learning. For $5 I can’t think of a reason not to buy this game. Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.

Burgoo – Another microgame that cost $5. This is my go-to lunchtime game for more than two players (although it plays quite well with two, as well), it is easy to teach, short, and being a game about soup, the theme fits perfectly. After I received it, it sat on my shelf for about a month, as I wasn’t sure I wanted to actually play it (it had been an impulse purchase) and the rules didn’t immediately ‘click’ for me (through no fault of their own, the mechanics are different from anything else I’ve played before, as soon as I actually started to play, it all made sense immediately). Once I gave it a shot, however, I absolutely loved it. It feels quick and light, but the endgame can turn into a bit of a brain burner (in a good way, as I usually play it at lunch and while one player is thinking of how to screw over their fellow chefs everyone else is actually eating, no one gets bored). Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.

Vikings – Vikings, you know them: longboats, horned helmets, axes, pillaging. This game has nothing to do with any of that, instead focusing on the other stuff they did, namely founding settlements, trading, and farming. This game consists of six rounds in which players take turns buying island tiles and viking meeples from a really clever rotating rondel that adjusts the prices for things as each turn progresses. The game plays quickly (about an hour), has plenty of indirect interaction, and is full of interesting decisions. I had been wanting to try it for a long time but it was out of print, so when I heard about the reprint I requested a copy from my FLGS. Money well spent. Recommended for: anyone looking for a quick mid-weight economic game.

Waggle Dance – One of my goals this year is to spend less money on Kickstarter, particularly for larger companies who are using it as a preorder system. I have nothing against that, personally, but it screws with my budgeting. So, going forward, I want to shift my  focus to backing games that might not succeed without me. Waggle Dance falls squarely in this category. It met its funding goal, but just barely. And man is it a great game. It is all about building a hive and making honey, with each player having a ton of dice representing bees which are used to take actions. It feels really elegant, has beautiful design, and you get to chuck a ton of dice (each player can get as many as eighteen, though ties are broken by the player with the fewest bees, which makes for a really interesting dynamic). Recommended for: anyone looking  for a “dicer placement” game that can range from light-weight lighthearted filler to a cutthroat medium-weight game.

Dungeon Lords – “Well, everyone got what they wanted this turn.” Wait, I must be thinking of a different game. Dungeon Lords is a game about building a dungeon and killing pesky heroes, in which you never have quite enough actions or resources to make things work out like you want them to. That might sound kind of harsh, but I absolutely love this game. It is hard (even when I win, I feel like I’m losing for the entire game), but very rewarding (even when I lose, I have a great time, partially due to the shared suffering of the rest of the players). The learning curve is steep (expect to spend some time learning how things work before royally botching your first game) and the game isn’t for everyone, but if you know someone who owns a copy, you need to at least give it a shot. Recommended for: people who are distraught that things are just too easy in their lives; people who want to feel like they have accomplished something, even when they lose.

Tzolk’in – Tzolk’in is one of those games that looked as if it might be a flash in the pan when it came out in 2012. It is a worker placement game (a game in which the primary mechanic is placing pawns–“workers”–onto a limited pool of actions that are available to the other players, too). It has a beautiful board with a giant rotating gear in the center. When it first came out, I thought that its popularity might be due to the novelty of the board, but it turns out that there is a solid game underneath those rotating wheels and that it does some interesting things with the mechanic. Usually in a worker placement game you take turns selecting actions and once everyone is out of workers, you get to do the things that you chose. In Tzolk’in, however, the workers stay on their spots until the player chooses to remove them, and because those spots are on gears that get rotated by the central wheel, the longer you wait to pull off your workers, the better the actions you can do. When combined with the variety of paths to victory, the result is a game that is packed with interesting decisions. Probably my favorite game of all time. Recommended for: anyone who isn’t afraid of some brain work.

2 de Mayo – When people ask me about games that I love but that no one seems to have heard about, 2 de Mayo is my go-to answer. It is often referred to as a wargame, but it lacks many of the stereotypical hallmarks of the genre: it is not a long, sprawling, complex game, but rather a short, tight, focused brain-burner. It plays really quickly (30 minutes) and I’m glad for that because I don’t think that I could handle it for any longer. The game is about Napolean’s invasion of Madrid on, you guessed it, May 2nd. The Spanish player’s goal is simply to survive ten turns and the French player is trying to destroy all of the Spanish forces while controlling all of the city entrances. The result is a cat-and-mouse game that is combined with secret orders and simultaneous actions. I may not always be in the mood for it, but I love it. Recommended for: People wanting a quick, tense filler. History buffs (the rulebook has an overview of situation and all of the event cards are based on things that actually happened).

Brass – I should be clear that I’ve only played this game twice and don’t know it nearly as well as the others on this list. That being said, I love it. It is the heaviest game on this list, I think, but doesn’t feel dry. I love just about everything about Brass, but there are a few things that stand out. First, I love the canal/railway dichotomy. Halfway through the game, all of the canals that you’ve spent so much blood and treasure building become obsolete, but most of the buildings in the cities that they connect stay around, leaving a very interesting puzzle as players have to rebuild the infrastructure. Second, it does interdependence very well, as you can sell cotton through your opponents ports benefitting them in the short term but possibly wrecking their timing (as they might have trouble selling their cotton after that. Finally, I love the theme. For me, well done theme means that the game feels like what it represents (Cash N Guns, for example, definitely feels like you are getting screwed over by your criminal associates), and Brass feels like a bunch of entrepreneurs scrambling to ride the tide of modernization. Recommended for: people who like economic games but want some flavor, too. Anyone watching Peaky Blinders.

Games I’m excited to play this year: Taluva, Panamax, Harbour, Impulse, Republic of Rome, and Tigris and Euphates. More on those in a future post.

Thanks to Zach Havok for pointing me to the post (worth checking out, by the way, as is the rest of the blog) that inspired this list, by eclectic blogger Keith Law. Zach is also the reason that the list is eleven items and not, say, ten (he really likes eleven, I guess).

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